What is Ancient Nacional Cacao?

The Genetics of Cacao

Cacao geneticists recognize up to eleven varieties of cacao, also known as genetic clusters. One of these eleven cacao varieties is called Nacional, which is native to Ecuador and is generally regarded as the most coveted cacao variety in the world. Its fame in the global market dates back several centuries, although its ancient origins run much deeper.

But the term Nacional, as it refers to Ecuadorian cacao, is often misused and generally misunderstood in the modern-day chocolate industry. The complications began about a hundred years ago. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it is surmised that all cacao grown in coastal Ecuador was 100% genetically-pure Nacional. Starting in 1916, there was a back-to-back outbreak of two plant diseases (Frosty Pod and Witches’ Broom), which infected cacao across the country. Production was crippled. Foreign cacao varieties were subsequently introduced to Ecuador in response to this crisis.

Over the course of the rest of the century, the Nacional cacao trees that survived the outbreak of disease began hybridizing with the foriegn cacao varieties. The “pure” Nacional cacao mother trees slowly but surely died. In many cases, they were even cut down, because they’re more finicky to cultivate than the new hybrids and they’re also less productive. By the end of the twentieth century, it was believed that there were no more 100% pure Nacional cacao trees left.

In 2013, in the valley of Piedra de Plata, To’ak’s co-founders found hidden groves of old-growth cacao trees that matched the description of Ancient Nacional.

DNA analysis provided by the USDA later confirmed that these trees are, in fact, 100% pure “Ancient Nacional” cacao. Piedra de Plata, along with a valley in northern Peru, represented the last two strongholds of this variety.

In the years that followed, To’ak and its rainforest conservation partner Third Millennium Alliance (TMA) embarked on a project to pull this legendary cacao variety back from the brink of extinction. There is now a “Genetic Bank” of pure Ancient Nacional trees growing in the Jama-Coaque Reserve, a protected forest preserve nearby. This is the fountain of new generations of Ancient Nacional cacao, which we hope to distribute to other interested cacao growers throughout the province.

Read about our social and environmental commitments (including how we are paying the highest prices to farmers, going beyond certification, up-cycling product, and protecting endangered varieties of cacao).

Further Reading

The Main Steps in the Production of To'ak Chocolate

Timeline for To'ak Chocolate and Third Millennium Alliance's Conservation Project

The Different Grades of Ecuadorian Cacao

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